Q & A Series:

How Did The Israelites Cast A Golden Calf By Mount Sinai?

 

 

HI Craig,

  

I am a long time believer and I was reticently asked a Bible question that I was unable to give a reasonable answer to, by a none believing friend/coworker.

   

Q. How did the Israelites cast a golden calf by Mount Sinai after wondering in the desert for forty years while Moses is up on the mountain talking with God?

    

Any help would be appreciated.

 

Brad

 

 

Craig’s Answer:

 

 

Hi Brad~

 

Thanks for the question; it’s fairly easy to find in the Book of Exodus chapter 32.  Your friend may not be too familiar with the Old Testament account of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the starting point for the journey into the wilderness or desert.  You may recall the Egyptians gave the Hebrews volumes of gold, silver, and other treasures just to get rid of them. 

 

Lest we take credit from Whom it is due, when God told Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, He insured that they would not leave empty-handed, promising the Egyptians would supply them with gold.  The LORD (Yahweh) said to Moses in Exodus 3:20-22, “So I will stretch out My hand, and strike Egypt with all My miracles which I shall do in the midst of it; and after that he will let you go. And I will grant this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and the woman who lives in her house, articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and you will put them on your sons and daughters. Thus you will plunder the Egyptians." NAS

 

The Egyptians excelled at fine filigree work on their golden earrings and also wore earrings set with gemstones. Gold was plentiful in Egypt's desert areas between the border of cultivation on the east bank of the Nile and the Red Sea and also to the south of Egypt in Nubia. A rather comprehensive picture of Egyptian gold work over the 4000 years of its history has been obtained through the excavation of many sites during the past 200 years.

 

The ancient Egyptians’ gold was primarily reserved for the use by royalty. It was used for jewelry, including head ornaments, large pectorals (collar necklaces), rings, earrings, and bracelets, and special funerary equipment, including all of the above as well as toe- and finger-guards and ceremonial sandals. Gold was also used for the decoration of insignia of kingly power—the flail, the scepter, and the throne—as well as for drinking cups and such personal weapons as daggers. The solid gold coffin now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo was discovered in 1922 in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (alias ‘King Tut’) and weighing 2448 pounds! 

 

·          Exodus 12:35-36 Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; 36 and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. NAS

 

This means there was more than adequate supply of gold on hand.  Below I have highlighted the text to show you where the Israelites got the gold to fashion a golden calf.

 

·          Exodus 32:1-4 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." 2 And Aaron said to them, "Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." 3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it into a molten calf; and they said, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt." NAS

 

Considering there was an estimated population of three million Israelites that Moses led out of Egypt and into the desert, only a small percentage of them would need to donate gold for the “calf” project.

 

Notice in the text of Exodus 32:4 that Aaron took this collection of gold earrings from their hand, and then he “fashioned” it with a graving tool, and made it into a molten calf.  The Hebrew word for graving tool is cheret (OT: 2747); a cheret is an engraving tool, a stylus, or a chisel.

 

Pure gold is the most malleable and pliable of all the metals. It can easily be beaten or hammered.  Aaron was skilled as a worker of metal and used a graving tool to fashion the gold in the shape of a molten calf.  He may have used fire to increase pliability but not to cast in a mold.  Gold melts at about 1064° C (about 1947° F), and boils at about 2808° C (about 5086° F); such temperatures require a forge, and while it is plausible, I think highly unlikely.

 

The Israelites gained a fair degree of their knowledge of gold metallurgy from the Egyptians whose overlaying of gold on wood in the form of an ox or bull calf was quite common.  The Hebrew word for “fashion,” is tsuwr (OT: 6696) and is in the Qal Imperfect, therefore it means, “to form, to fashion.”  In the photo inserted you see an example of Egyptian craftsmanship, which is gold hammered again and again until it is “formed” into one, thin, solid piece of gold.  This is of course another very possible description of the process used by Aaron.

 

The text of Exodus 32:4 uses another verb following “fashioned” which is the Hebrew word, “asah,” translated as, “made.”  The Hebrew word “asah” means, “to make out of existing material.”  This supports the evidence that whatever gold calf fashioned was “made” from materials that were already in existence.  This means there was not any gold ore taken from the ground.

 

The Lord’s commandment to Moses and Aaron concerning the building of the Ark of the Covenant involved the use of copious amounts of gold Brad.  God commanded that all the sons of Israel bring offerings of the gold plundered from the Egyptians for use in constructing the Tabernacle.  You can find references of gold offerings for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25:1-9; 35:4; 39:32-43.

 

You can inform your friend that working with gold was not new to the sons of Israel.  Read Exodus 25:10-39 and you will see they made an array of intricately engraved and formed gold metal ornaments for the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant; below is part of this impressive list:

 

·          Exodus 25:10-11 The ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits long (45 inches long), and one and a half cubits wide (27” inches wide), and one and a half cubits high (27” inches high), overlaid with pure gold, inside and out & a gold crown, a rim or border, around its top.  NOTE: One cubit equals approx 18 inches.

 

·          Exodus 25:12-13 four gold rings cast and attached to the four lower corners of the ark, two rings on either side.

 

·          Exodus 25:13 Four poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold.

 

·          Exodus 25:17 A mercy seat of pure gold, two cubits and a half long and a cubit and a half wide.

 

·          Exodus 25:18 two cherubim (winged angelic figures) of [solid] hammered gold.

 

·          Exodus 25:23-24 a table of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide, and a cubit and a half high for the showbread overlaid with pure gold with a crown, a rim or molding, of gold around the top of it.

 

·          Exodus 25:28 poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold to carry the table

 

·          Exodus 25:29 plates for showbread and cups for incense, and its flagons and bowls for liquids in sacrifice made of pure gold.

 

·          Exodus 25:31 lampstand made of pure gold; made with beaten and turned work; both its base and its shaft; its cups, its knobs, and its flowers shall be of one piece of solid gold with it.

 

I think this is ample proof the Israelites knew how to work with gold and had plenty of it to use.  Read Exodus chapter 26, chapter 28, and chapter 30 for even more details of their work in gold.  Further, in chapter 31 of Exodus, God told Moses He would give the people the skills and wisdom needed to form the gold, silver, etc, and overlay the wood with it.

 

·          Exodus 31:1-8 AND THE Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.  And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and ability, in understanding and intelligence, and in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to devise skillful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in bronze, and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all kinds of craftsmanship. And behold, I have appointed with him Aholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and to all who are wise hearted I have given wisdom and ability to make all that I have commanded you: the ark of the Testimony, the mercy seat that is on it, all the furnishings of the tent--the table of the showbread and its utensils, the pure gold lampstand with all its utensils, the altar of incense…AMP

 

So you see, they had both skill and material to work with, but the Israelites disobeyed God and used the skills He had given them for idolatry (golden calf).  From these texts it becomes evident the golden calf was more likely to be made of either wood, or of stone, and then overlaid with gold.

 

The Hebrew word rendered as “molten” (as in molten calf) in Exodus 32:4 is maccekah (OT: 4541) and this word has two possible meanings:

 

1.      A pouring over, i.e. fusion of metal.”  What is indicated is layering of gold metal, an ancient form of casting used to form one solid piece of material or to overlay gold on wood or stone.

 

2.      A libation (with covenant sacrifice) such as a drink-offering.”

 

The likelihood is definition number two; libation involves the act of pouring wine, either on the ground, or on a victim in sacrifice, in honor of some deity. The Israelites probably took a live animal, (a male calf nearly a young bull) and poured a wine libation over the golden calf first, then poured it over the animal before offering the calf in sacrifice to Yahweh.  Later you will see why this is the best explanation of events.

 

The Israelites are obviously influenced by their former taskmasters the Egyptians, who regularly practiced libation as reverence for the solar gods.  The Egyptians considered libation a solemn act and always accompanied the pouring out of drink with prayer.  The Egyptians were close neighbors of the Hebrews, even in captivity and in all eras from that of the Exodus onward. 

 

The idea of calf worship was not new to the Hebrew children because they had witnessed the Egyptians worship living bulls at Memphis and Hellopolls as incarnations of Ptah and Ra.  These deities no doubt influenced the idolatrous worship of the Israelites.

 

More relevant to your inquiry Brad is the fact that calf worship was common among all the ancient Semitic peoples, not just the Israelites. As early as the date of the Exodus Babylonians, Canaanites, Hittites, Sumerians, and more used the stars of heaven and beasts in a form of worship/sacrifice.  It should be noted the calf was not always regarded by all as being themselves deities, but rather as symbols or representations of deity.

 

The Babylonians venerated the bull as the symbol of their greatest gods, Ann and Sin and Marduk-the ideograph of a young bullock forming a part of the latter's name-while Hadadrimmon, an important Amorite deity, whose attributes remarkably resemble those of Yahweh.  To the Semitic Canaanites the bull was the symbol of Baal, and the cow of Astarte.

 

The account of Moses destroying the calf in Deuteronomy 9:20-21 does not refer to it as a “molten calf” and there is sufficient reason from the text to believe the calf was possibly made of wood or some other combustible material overlaid with gold.

 

·          Deuteronomy 9:20-21 Moses said, “The LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him; so I also prayed for Aaron at the same time. 21 I took your sinful thing, the calf, which you had made, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it very small until it was as fine as dust; and I threw its dust into the brook that came down from the mountain. NASU

The description in Deuteronomy 9:21 indicates other materials, such as clay or rock, may be overlaid with gold.  Wood is easily  “burned” in the fire, but Moses was also, “grinding it very small until it was as fine as dust,” supporting the idea that materials other than wood and gold were used to fashion the golden calf.  

The final proof for how the gold calf was made is found in the New Testament when Stephen describes the exact process used to make the golden calf and the apparent false astrological deities behind such idolatry:

 

·          Acts 7:39-44 “And our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron,' Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt-- we do not know what happened to him.' 41 And at that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, 'It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel? 43 You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship them. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.' 44 Our fathers had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen.”   NAS

 

One last note, most Bible translations erroneously translate Exodus 32:4 as, “molten calf.” Since the Hebrew word for, “molten,” actually means, “libation,” Stephen’s speech verifies the words, “molten calf,” in Exodus 32:4 actually refer to a, “libation poured out,” upon the golden calf idol, adding the missing piece of the puzzle.  This fact is corroborated because the Israelites also brought an animal, “sacrifice” to the golden calf idol (Acts 7:41) as a form of worship. 

 

So you can inform your friend the Israelites had the skill to work in gold, plenty of gold from their exodus from Egypt, motive for making the idol, and how it was performed.  I hope this is helpful to you Brad.

 

God bless you,

 

Craig L. Bluemel - The Bible Answer Stand Ministry 

 

Always be ready to give a logical defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you, but do so courteously & respectfully.  1 Peter 3:15

 

 


 

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